Lewis: It’s too early to give up on him, but C.J. Spiller is not contributing to Saints as expected _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Saints running back C.J. Spiller cuts his way through the Falcons defense last Thursday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“I know this: I’m going to work real hard to make sure he gets enough touches. We’re looking for those opportunities.” — Sean Payton before the Atlanta game on increasing C.J. Spiller’s contributions.

“You asked about it the other day. … He’s a guy that can make a lot of things happen with the ball in his hands. So we’ve got to keep looking to do a better job that way.” Payton after Spiller totaled 27 yards off three carries and four receptions against the Falcons.

Yeah, the Saints coach is sounding a little annoyed at the question.

But probably not half as much as he is about how Spiller — the free-agent signee who was supposed to take up the third-down home-run hitter mantle held previously by Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas — has, with the exception of one spectacular, game-winning play, thus far failed to do so.

Obviously there was the 80-yard pitch and catch with Drew Brees that lifted the Saints to their 26-20 overtime victory against Dallas.

Take away that play, though, and you have only 12 carries for 41 yards and 14 receptions for 69 more with no touchdowns either way.

Even with the touchdown against the Cowboys figured in, Spiller is averaging only 38 yards from scrimmage in five games. (Spiller missed the opener against Phoenix recovering from a minor knee procedure he underwent in August.)

If he maintains that pace for the rest of the year, that would be only 570 yards, or $7,017.54 per yard based on the four-year, $16 million contract Spiller signed in March after spending the first five seasons of his career with Buffalo.

“A dream landing spot,” NFL.com called it at the time.

Obviously it’s far too early to declare the Spiller signing a nightmare, the player who declared, “I’m coming full speed at ya. Trust me, you’ll know when 28’s out there,” before making his season debut in the Tampa Bay game (seven snaps, four touches, 26 yards) is a little more circumspect these days.

“If I had an answer to it, I’d be able to tell you,” Spiller said Wednesday when asked why he’s not seeing the ball more. “It just comes down to taking advantage of the opportunities you get and controlling what you can control.

“That’s really been my mindset since I’ve been playing this game.”

Perhaps opportunities is the key word here.

In the Falcons game, Spiller was on the field for only 15 snaps.

Part of that reason is situational. While the Saints reached third down 16 times, they did well enough on first and second down that they averaged needing only 4.1 yards on third down, a figure slightly skewed by the third-and-18 they faced early in the second quarter.

Ironically, the call in that situation was a screen pass to Spiller which he caught 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage and wound up picking up just 1 yard.

That doesn’t help a player’s average per catch any more than an 80-yarder helps it.

But minus the big one against the Cowboys, Spiller is averaging only 4.9 yards-per reception compared to his pre-Saints norm of 7.6. He’s averaging 3.4 yards-per-carry after getting 5.0 with the Bills.

Blocking helps, of course, but Spiller’s in-space plays mostly have been quickly stopped.

Spiller, who missed the last seven games of 2014 with a broken collarbone, insists there are no lingering physical issues and that while “it kind of sets you back,” to miss practice in training camp, he got sufficient mental reps on the field, paid careful attention in film study, and read his playbook rigorously so that he is not behind in knowing the offense.

Where that leaves Spiller for Sunday’s game at Indianapolis is anyone’s guess.

He might be, he joked, a decoy whose presence, or threatened presence, will cause the Colts to prepare more for him than they should. And, he added, he’s never been an every-down back despite being the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft.

“Anything that helps us win,” he said.

While Spiller obviously would rather be making more of his contributions on the field, he’s also considered a good teammate.

Spiller particularly praises Mark Ingram — whose new contract Spiller’s slightly exceeded — who ranks 17th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, 230 of them off receptions, 85 more than his previous season best.

“Mark is off to a great start, and he’s really showing what a versatile back he is,” Spiller said. “I just love the way he goes out and competes every day.”

Fellow running back Khiry Robinson, whose 247 yards from scrimmage exceeds Spiller’s 190, said his new teammate brings a lot of intangibles to the locker room.

“Fast hands, smart guy, knows football,” Robinson said “What more can you ask for?

“We talk about life, and he’s taught me a lot of things. He’s a great man to have on the team.”

And if Spiller is nonetheless a little naturally discontented, winning as the Saints did against the Falcons makes things better.

Plus as everyone points out, each week in the NFL brings a new opportunity.

“Like I said, I can only control what I can control,” he said. “The most important thing to me is that we keep winning.

“When the smoke clears, I’ll be perfectly fine.”

And if not, Payton can expect the same questions again next week.